College & Workforce Readiness

Growing Number of States Embrace Career Education

By Catherine Gewertz — October 04, 2017 5 min read
High school senior Sarah Murray, left, undergoes an ultrasound conducted by Nichole Ebener, center, at Perry Memorial Hospital in Princeton, Ill. Murray and fellow Princeton High School senior Ellise Piper, right, were participating in a career internship program at the hospital.

After years of focusing intensely on college readiness, states are turning their attention to students’ futures as workers, enacting a flurry of laws and policies designed to bolster career education and preparation.

“What we’re seeing is that there’s been a shift from focusing purely on college readiness to thinking also about career readiness,” said Jennifer Thomsen, who analyzes policy for the Education Commission of the States.

“For the longest time, the ‘career’ part just kind of dropped off. But now, states are really getting back to the idea that college and career readiness really does mean both of those things.”

In the last year and a half, states have stepped up to create their own ways of prioritizing career study while a long-overdue reauthorization of the main federal career and technical education law, the Carl D. Perkins Act, “percolates” in Congress, said Catherine Imperatore, who tracks legislation for the Association for Career and Technical Education.

Arizona, for instance, designed its accountability system this year to give substantial weight to such factors as how many high school students finish a career-technical-education course sequence, earn an industry-recognized credential, or complete 120 hours of work-based learning.

Kansas passed a law that pays schools $1,000 for each student who graduates from high school with an industry-recognized credential. That move was designed to incentivize and support schools to provide programs that get students ready for work, said state Rep. Melissa Rooker, who helped write the law.

The state’s headline-grabbing budget troubles have slashed the stipend to about $35 per student this year, Rooker said, but she hopes Kansas can find a way to fully fund that law soon.

Getting the Word Out

Some states have taken the approach of requiring a better flow of career-oriented information to students and families. Colorado, for instance, now requires schools to include options like certificates, apprenticeships, and the military in their career counseling.

Oregon passed a law requiring its education department to partner with the state’s labor bureau to draft a list of apprenticeships that must be sent to schools and shared with students and parents. Idaho, which used to grant dual credit only for academic courses, now requires districts to let students know that they can get college credit for career-tech ed courses as well.

In Texas, a new law requires education officials to collaborate with the state’s higher education and workforce departments to develop and post on their websites an “inventory” of certifications and credentials students can earn that reflect workforce needs and offer routes to middle- and high-skill jobs.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio, who co-sponsored the Texas legislation, said he hopes schools will use the inventory to develop coursework for in-demand careers and to advise students about opportunities. Most good jobs in Texas demand postsecondary certificates, licenses, or degrees, but only 20 percent of high school graduates in the state have them, he said.

“We are providing 20th-century education in a 21st-century market,” said Lucio, a Democrat. “The biggest opportunity we see in Texas is that technical space, that license-certificate-tradesman space. We want to be able to tell employers we have the skilled workers they need.”

Two states pushed forward on career study by bringing it into middle school. In Maine, career and technical education had been available only in high school, but a new law expanded it into middle schools. Indiana decided to include all its middle schools in a pilot program that uses an online “career explorer” tool with 8th grade students.

Illinois and Virginia both passed laws making it easier to get career-tech-ed teachers into the classroom. Virginia now allows school boards to waive some licensure requirements for the teachers they want to hire for career and technical education classes. And Illinois now permits teachers to get CTE endorsements from accredited trade and technical schools as well as state colleges and universities.

‘Graduation Pathways’ in Indiana

A pair of new laws in Indiana could expand and strengthen options for students who want a more career-oriented approach to high school study. A law that requires the state board of education to use workforce data to design career-tech-ed pathways could help eliminate courses of study that don’t lead to good jobs.

The other law drops the state requirement that students pass an exam to graduate and instructs the state board of education to design various “graduation pathways” instead. Students would still have to take end-of-course tests for accountability but will, it is hoped, have additional options for demonstrating what they’ve learned, said state Rep. Robert Behning, who co-sponsored the legislation.

A state board subcommittee on which he serves is currently exploring the design of those pathways and how they’ll assess student learning. To Behning, a Republican, the new approach is a “needed correction” in a system that’s put too little emphasis on career-oriented forms of study.

“For too long, we’ve been focused on four-year colleges, and that’s not necessarily the right course for every student,” he said. He hopes the board can craft options that allow schools to “get creative, think out of the box” to let students demonstrate career competencies in applied settings.

As they focus more intently on career preparation, some states have opted to use their diplomas to send signals to employers. Tennessee will now award a special “tri-star scholar” designation to students who add an industry-recognized certificate and minimum scores on the SAT or ACT to their completion of all graduation requirements.

Missouri lawmakers decided to offer a new certificate connoting career competency. Starting this year, students can earn the career and technical education certificate, in addition to a high school diploma, if they meet seven requirements, including completing three related career courses with a B grade-point average and completing 50 hours of work-based learning.

Now, state officials are focused on reaching out to the business sector so it understands what the new certificates mean.

“We don’t want businesses to just say ‘so what’ when a student shows them a CTE certificate. We want to make sure they know that they indicate a certain level of [workplace] competency,” said Dennis Harden, the coordinator of career education at the Missouri education department.

A new advisory council made up of representatives from government, business, and education set the requirements for the certificate. It originated with a 2016 law that was designed, Harden said, to “recognize students who are choosing perhaps another pathway than going directly to college.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 04, 2017 edition of Education Week as Growing Numbers of States Embrace Career Education

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